Aung San Suu Kyi Vows to Sort Out COVID-19 Relief Snags For Myanmar’s Poor

myanmar-protesters-cash-assistance-yangon-nov14-2020.jpg Protesters demand action from local administrative officials over what they say is the mismanagement of COVID-19 relief funds for working-class families, in Mingaladon township, lower Myanmar's Yangon region, Nov. 14, 2020.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has vowed to resolve delays in COVID-19 relief cash assistance for low-income families amid a growing public outcry and some protests over glitches in the popular assistance program.

In the state counselor’s first major public remarks since the Nov. 8 general  elections, won by a landslide by her National League for Democracy (NLD), she promised on Monday to get relief to the poor suffering under coronavirus restrictions.

So far, the ruling government has provided four rounds of cash assistance to working-class people affected by unemployment and COVID-19 restrictions, though many have complained that they have been left out of the program and have staged protests at government administration offices.

The cash assistance program provides 40,000 kyats (U.S. $23) per family in designated regions and 20,000 kyats (U.S. $15) to families in other areas. The minimum wage in the country of 54 million people was 4,800 kyats (U.S. $3.70) per day in 2018.

“This is the fourth time we are providing the cash assistance,” Aung San Suu Kyi said during a speech. “Everything went smoothly during the first, second, and third times, but we have seen mobs and protests during the fourth time. This is unnecessary.”

The state counselor said the government would not leave anyone behind and that it was opening centers where aggrieved citizens could file complaints as well as publishing phone numbers that qualified families could call if they had not received any assistance.

“You can calmly file the complaints at these centers and tell us what happened,” Aung San Su Kyi said. “We will resolve issues if qualified citizens have been left out.”

Myanmar reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case in March. Since then, the number of infections has surged as of mid-August. On Tuesday, Myanmar registered 71,730 confirmed cases, including 1,569 new cases, and 1,625 total deaths.

Myanmar has put in place various restrictions, including public transportation shutdowns and stay-at home and work-from-home orders to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus, which have led to unemployment among working-class citizens.

In late April, the government issued a COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan to mitigate the blows dealt by the pandemic, including household exemptions from electricity tariffs up to 150 units per month, food and emergency rations for at-risk populations, increased benefits for pregnant women, infants, and pensioners, and cash transfers to vulnerable households.

Rich people benefit

The first round of payments totaling 72 billion kyats (U.S. $55 million) was designated for 5.4 million households without an income due to the coronavirus. A second round totaling 218.3 billion kyats (U.S. $166 million) followed.

The government issued a third 113.9 billion kyats (U.S. $87 million) tranche for 5.7 million households, while the fourth round of payments totaling 164 billion kyats (U.S. $125 million) has been earmarked for 6.1 million households.

Some citizens have accused the government of directing the cash payments to business owners and those who are friends with community leaders and administrators, while families in need have not received anything.

Thein Tun, a resident of Yekyi township in Ayeyarwady region who said he has received three payments of 20,000 kyats (U.S. $15) each from the government, told RFA that people who own vehicles and large houses also have received relief money.

“The people who are living from hand to mouth received only 12,700 kyats [U.S. 10],” he said. “Most people are too afraid to complain.”

“They say this assistance is for working-class people only, [but] now rich people with property are also claiming it,” he said.

Myint Oo, a squatter who lives in Shwepyitha township in Yangon region, said he did not receive the full amount of the payment he was entitled to, and that officials asked him to sign a statement that he had received 20,000 kyats, when he had been given only 18,000 kyats in two separate payments.

“It is not acceptable that I didn’t receive the full amount of cash assistance from the state,” he said.

Myint Oo said he filed a complaint at a local administrative office, but officials have taken no action.

“This time, I got only 33,500 kyats out of promised 40,000 kyats, [but] I didn’t take it and sign for it,” he added.

Same rules don’t apply

President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay said problems with the relief payments have been caused by misunderstanding, a lack of complete information in many areas, and claims for cash assistance by some unqualified families.

He told RFA that local-level complaint centers would begin operating Monday.

Than Soe, an economic analyst in Yangon, said the government has failed to take enough time when preparing the lists of families who should receive cash assistance in each ward and village.

“We have redundant information from different departments, such as the civil administration and the Labor Ministry,” he said. “The authorities assess the socioeconomic lives of people based on these data. They don’t apply the same rules to all villages and regions.”

Chan Myo Tun, an administrative officer from Sagaing township in Sagaing region, said officials there provide the cash assistance according to information they receive from lower administrative levels.

“We don’t know exactly how they have distributed it on the ground,” he said. “There are decrees not to give assistance to well-off people, but not every civil administrator complies with the instructions.”

Chan Myo Tun said his office would submit all complaints it receives to the regional-level administrative office, whose orders local civil servants follow.

“Violators will receive punishments depending on the extent of the crime,” he added.

Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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